For Prof.Thomas Christensen, there are two challenges that currently face the US and its allies in East Asia. The first is a security challenge: China’s rise has been threatening its neighboring countries for quite some time now. What are China’s motives for the region, and what are the consequences of the region’s destabilization? The second is a more chronic issue: how can the international community get China to actively contribute to global governance and help countries face challenges and solve problems? These are the primary questions of his new book, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, from Princeton University Press. First, Prof. Christensen believes that the security challenge that China presents is only natural; the points of friction that it has with its neighbors is a consequence of its growth. America’s growth was no different in the 19th century; it became embroiled in a war with the Philippines for several years, even though it did not mean to do so. What has amplified recent security concerns is China’s accumulation of advanced military technology with its buildup of conventionally-tipped, rogue-mobile, solid-fueled ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft and air defenses and cyberattack technologies, but Prof. Christensen is careful to point out that this doesn’t mean that we’re in a new Cold War; the lines are not clearly marked between China and the US as they had been between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
Prof. Christensen then proceeded to provide a more primordial explanation for the security challenge. Psychological studies have shown that humans are willing to pay higher costs and take greater risks in order to preserve the status quo, which serves as a plausible basis for the strength of territorial convictions in the South China Sea. Further complications to the situation stem from domestic politics, China’s coercive strategy, and the uncertainty of how America might respond. Domestic politics in China have shown overwhelming support in sticking to the status quo in its historical grievances, putting pressure on the center to avoid making any concessions at the bargaining table. Additionally, China is well aware that it cannot match the military capabilities of the US and its East Asian allies, which is why having a coercive strategy by raising the costs of conflict makes sense from where it stands. And while the US is known for using aggressive tactics to push back security threats, it has never dared to do so with a nuclear power.
Transitioning to the second challenge proposed in his book, Prof. Christensen highlighted several previous points of conflict between the international community and China. China has always allied with countries that have been labeled as pariahs by the international community, the most notorious of which are Iran and North Korea. When America targeted China for its greenhouse emissions and wanton pollution, China retorted that it was still a developing country and that America had similar levels of pollution back when it was a developing country as well. Finally, Prof. Christensen singled out the Greek crisis in 2012, when China was asked to provide bailout funds for assistance. China found it hard to believe that it should bail out wealthy Europeans who had squandered their money on social security investments while it had worked hard to get where it was, and refused to provide any assistance.
In Prof. Christensen’s opinion, these are not zero-sum differences; there is a way for the international community and China to work together to solve issues that affect the world. The most immediate way to do that is to get China to understand that cooperation is better than aggression. By having a strong military presence in the region as well as alliances to back it, America can balance against China’s own power, pushing the latter to consider less coercive strategies of engagement with the international community. America should also invite China to consult on solutions to issues early and often; if China chooses not to, any chosen alternative should be detrimental to their own interests. Finally, on the issue of America dealing with states that it sees as a threat to international security, Prof. Christensen stressed on the need for recommending proscribed change to those regimes rather than advocating for total regime change. The latter scares off China from taking part in the diplomatic process, as seen in the case of Libya, where the US and NATO orchestrated the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. In order to facilitate this, working with regional alliances and local institutions like the African Union and the Arab League in their respective parts of the world is key to bringing China to the negotiating table.
In conclusion, Prof. Christensen says that America needs to rethink its current foreign policy to better accommodate and account for China in the international community. United Nations Security Council discussions would be more fruitful if Russia and China did not veto most of their resolutions; Prof. Christensen doesn’t advocate for America to improve its relations with the former, perhaps because he sees more benefit in bringing a rising power closer to America’s side. After his talk, questions about President’s Obama’s pivot to Asia, America’s criticisms of China’s human rights policies, and the impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership on US-China relations were all discussed.